Berlin's Adopted Son Wants to Open His City to People Like Him - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Berlin's Adopted Son Wants to Open His City to People Like Him

Berlin's Adopted Son Wants to Open His City to People Like Him

By Milan Gagnon


Because Angela Merkel’s Germany is polarized and changing.

By Milan Gagnon

Raed Saleh arrived in Berlin’s Spandau neighborhood at the age of 5; since then, he’s been watching his city change. While rents climb and affordable housing gets renovated or razed, cracks are growing in the reunified capital along economic, ideological and ethnic lines. Now, the delicate task of addressing this transition has fallen on the city’s center-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its top deputy, 39-year-old Saleh.

Saleh’s task comes at a polarized time in Germany. Last fall, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party nicked votes from Germany’s two main centrist parties in Berlin’s municipal legislature, winning a shocking 14.2 percent of seats. That sent the SPD hunting for new partners on the left — the Greens and the Left — and pushing Saleh and company away from Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats. Saleh, first elected to the chamber in 2006, speaks the progressive language of his new coalition allies: “The common idea was that we wanted to make society as a whole more humane.” 

To that end, Saleh advocates for expanded access to employment and education to let people born abroad — as he was, in the West Bank — more quickly integrate into their city and contribute to it. He’s argued for capping rents to reduce housing inequality and predatory real estate practices. So far the coalition’s dream has manifested in a few concrete achievements: By the end of March, not quite four months into its mandate, the coalition had lowered the reduced-fare “social ticket” on public transit by €8.50 (about $9.20), moved thousands of refugees out of gymnasiums and into apartments and introduced plans to finalize rent controls.

If Saleh ever complained he’d been discriminated against, his father would say: “No, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.”         

Not everyone is happy. Florian Graf, the Christian Democrats’ leader in the legislature, called the coalition’s first three months “100 lost days for Berlin.” He told the German news agency DPA the new coalition had produced nothing but “bankruptcies, bad luck and breakdowns.” And Sebastian Czaja, the legislative leader of the laissez-faire Free Democrats, told the news agency the coalition’s attempts to slow the advance of big business showed its “lack of a vision for Berlin’s future.”

Saleh doesn’t lack for vision, although his may not align with Czaja’s. “I belong to a party that believes that people must have the opportunity for social advancement, and that people must not be categorized according to their economic usefulness, but that people are all equal — whether they’re head doctors or nurses; whether they’re top managers or unemployed,” he says. Saleh is known for being a good listener; he doesn’t drink, but drops into local bars to hear Berliners’ concerns. He’s also an impassioned speaker, both in the legislature and over the phone — holding forth on the SPD’s chances at the national level this year (not bad), on his Islamic faith (private) and on the current state of U.S. politics (“honestly, I’m worried”).


Living such values isn’t always easy in a city where cranes and wrecking balls fill the center, and lower-wage workers, the unemployed and immigrants have been pushed to neighborhoods where opportunities for work are scarce. Saleh and company will need to achieve a cultural shift alongside, or perhaps before, their policy shift. Today, many Germans see immigration as a process of integration, in which “foreigners” — often people whose families have lived in the country for generations — become “German.” 

Saleh’s father commuted between Germany and Palestine as a guest worker for years before bringing his wife and children to West Berlin in 1982. He moved them to the Spandau neighborhood, which at the time had few residents from abroad. He wanted his children to feel at home in Germany, insisting they unpack and store their suitcases in the closet as soon as they moved in. Saleh recalls that if he ever complained he’d been discriminated against, his father would say: “No, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.”

When Saleh ran for mayor in 2014, at age 37, he finished a disappointing third, behind two other SPD candidates. The media paid more attention to his “foreign” accent than his proposals, despite the fact he’d lived in Germany for three decades, been an SPD deputy in the municipal legislature for eight years and led the party in the legislature for three. But the race served to spotlight many of Saleh’s perennial causes: integration through education and employment, banishing the bizarre German demographic category of people, especially children, with a “migration background.” “They are Berlin children,” he declared to loud applause at a pre-election forum.

What Saleh has pledged for Berlin — a fairer start for everyone — may seem bold outside Europe. But “for us, it is inseparable from democracy,” says Peter Brandt, professor emeritus at the University of Hagen. In Saleh, a friend who occasionally seeks the academic’s counsel, Brandt sees “someone of Palestinian heritage and Islamic faith who unconditionally understands himself as a German and a Berliner.” One of Saleh’s greatest role models is Brandt’s father, Willy Brandt — World War II exile, 1969-74 SPD chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Brandt won’t speculate about whether his father would approve of Saleh as one of the party’s newest standard-bearers. “I am not the executor of my father’s legacy,” Brandt says, before pausing to add: “It’d be nice to think so.” 

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